This archive will close in September 2017. The material will be available on our new website at that time.

This archive will close in September 2017. The material will be available on our new website at that time.

Introduction to GIS

GIS or Geographic Information Systems are used to integrate hardware, software, and data that can be used for capturing, managing, analysing, sharing and displaying all forms of geographically (ie, information involving a location) referenced information.


What is GIS?

A GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualise data in many ways revealing new relationships, patterns and trends.

A GIS helps to answer questions and solve problems by looking at your data in a way that is quickly understood and easily shared.

There is an old adage that “80% of all information has a spatial context and we spend 80% of our time managing it and only 20% actually making use of it”. By using a geospatial, or location-based methodology to manage data, improved efficiency,  knowledge and therefore wisdom is achievable.

The history of spatial analysis started with the very first maps nearly 8000 years ago with modern techniques of spatial analysis being formalised in the later part of the twentieth century. Modern spatial analysis focuses on computer-based techniques because of the large amount of data and the power of modern statistical and GIS software.

The approach facilitates the creation of geographic knowledge by allowing us to measure and organise data, and then analyse and model various processes and their relationships. It allows us to apply this new knowledge to the way we design, plan, and make decisions.

Approaching a problem geographically involves framing the question from a location-based perspective, focusing on what problem is being addressed and what question is trying to be solved or analysed.

After clearly defining the problem, it is necessary to determine the data needed to complete the analysis.

We organise data (called a “schema”) and manage it in the most optimal way. It is important for us to understand how well the data corresponds to other datasets and the rules of the physical world (its topology) together with the provenance of the data (its metadata). We can then put together data layers with each geographic object in a layer being called a feature. A layer that does not contain discrete geographic objects but instead shows a continuous geographic expanse is called a surface.

We process and analyse data and modern GIS modelling tools make it relatively easy for us to make changes, analyse outcomes and create new products or outputs.

Further Reading

Who uses GIS?

Every day, millions of people and their organisations are empowered in their decisions through the use of Geographic Information Systems. This technology is helping to connect local communities, build new cities and understand our environment. For example:

  • Insurance companies use a GIS to make decisions around risk exposure.
  • Governments use a GIS to reduce costs and provide online services to citizens.
  • Utility companies use a GIS to help maintain and locate assets.
  • Housing associations use mobile GIS to manage estate repairs.
  • Police Forces use a GIS to reduce crime and improve public safety.

Some of the market sectors currently benefiting from the use of GIS include:

  • Aid and development: humanitarian aid, sustainable development.
  • Business: banking and financial services, insurance, media and press, real estate, retail.
  • Defense and Intelligence: geospatial intelligence and military operations (C4ISR).
  • Education: libraries and museums, schools, universities and community colleges.
  • Government: national, local, architecture, engineering, construction, elections and redistricting, facilities, land administration, public works, urban and regional planning.

The results and presentation of any analysis are vitally important. The results can be shared through reports, maps, tables, and charts and delivered in printed form or digitally over a network or the web.

What Can You Do with GIS?

A Geographic Information System (GIS) enables the visualisation, questioning, analysis, interpretation and understanding of data in many ways that reveal new relationships, patterns and trends, in the form of maps, globes, reports and charts.

A GIS gives us a new way to look at the world around us. With GIS we can:

  • Map where things Are. Mapping where things are lets us find places that have the features we’re looking for, and helps us to see patterns.
  • Map quantities. We map quantities to find places that meet our criteria so we may take action.
  • Map densities. A density map lets us measure the number of features using a uniform areal unit so we can clearly see the distribution.
  • Find what’s inside. We can monitor what’s happening and take specific action by mapping what’s inside a specific area.
  • Find what’s nearby. We can find out what’s going on within a set distance of a feature by mapping what’s nearby.
  • Map  change. We can map the change in an area to anticipate future conditions, decide on a course of action, or evaluate the results of an action or policy. By mapping where and how things move over a period of time, we can gain insight into how they behave.


What are the benefits of managing information geospatially?

Managing data geospatially allows captured internal business information to be combined with multiple layers of open source or public data to show new patterns and trends and thus support decision making.

Scenarios can be modelled to help us understand and analyse different combinations for planning and analysis. Such scenarios can be visualised to make sure the right decision is reached.

Asset and resource management can be improved in the field via mobile devices which in turn relay information back to head office. This can speed up processes and improve customer service, enabling informed decisions to be made on the move.

It enables the sharing of up-to-date information

Information can be shared to enable collaborative thinking and generate new ideas. All assets  can be maintained in a centralised database, which improves efficiency and reduces the risk of out-of-date data.

It improves business operations

Managing information geospatially can give you a competitive advantage by allowing you to harness and analyse multiple layers of data and incorporate geographic business intelligence into your IT strategy.

 It drives greater organisational efficiencies

GIS enables the sharing of appropriate information across your organisation and nurtures information decision making. It is also widely used to optimise maintenance schedules and daily fleet movements. Typical implementations can result in a savings of 10 to 30 per cent in operational expenses through reduction in fuel use and staff time, improved customer service, and more efficient scheduling.

It improves field operations

Mobile GIS use can improve data collection for maintenance operations and streamline business workflows.

It improves communication

GIS-based maps and visualisations greatly assist in our understanding of situations. They improve communication between different teams, departments, disciplines, professional fields, organisations, and the public.

It enables better record keeping

Many organisations have a primary responsibility of maintaining authoritative records about the status and change of geography. GIS provides a strong framework for managing these types of records with full transaction support and reporting tools.

It enables us to manage geographically

GIS is fast becoming essential to understanding what is happening – and what will happen – in geographic space. Once we understand, we can prescribe action. This new approach to management – managing geographically – is transforming the way that organisations operate and resulting in significant business improvements.